Missy Tippens, here. And for this Month of Firsts, I wanted to share about my first rejection. No, I’m not talking about the first boyfriend who dumped me. :) I’m talking about my first manuscript rejection, the result of the first time I braved sending my manuscript to a publisher.
Now, rest assured I had already sent the story out to contests and had endured that torture to prepare me for rejection. (The very first contest, I tied for 35th place…out of 36 entries. Yeah. Enough said about that.) :) And I even got some form rejection letters later, which were more painful. Those are the ones that come straight off the copy machine, and you can tell the letter has been copied over and over because the print is getting lighter and blurry around the edges, and there’s a lot of little stray dots of ink. They say something like:
Dear Author, we regret to inform you that this submission is not right for us at this time.
But my first true rejection actually had editor feedback. It said that my story lacked sparkle. And that the characters were cardboard.
So today, in honor of that first rejection, I thought we’d try to figure out what the editor meant and discuss how we can try to do better.
MANUSCRIPTS THAT DON’T SPARKLE
To me, this one is easier to interpret. But maybe more difficult to “fix.” Because I think sparkle means voice. It’s that certain “something” that makes your manuscript special. It’s what makes it yours and no one else’s. In my opinion, voice is something you have to discover as you write stories you love, stories that reflect your life experiences, your personality, the way you talk, the way you view life. Apparently, when I submitted that first story, I hadn’t found mine yet.
If you want to make sure your stories have that sparkle, keep writing, keep practicing. Work on story ideas you’re excited about. Write about something that’s important to you, stories that touch you at your core. You’ll eventually find your voice, and readers will stand up and take notice.
One of my critique partners, Lindi Peterson, wrote several great stories that I enjoyed. But then she tried writing the type story she’d always loved to read—first person, funny, light-hearted romance, with people learning to rely on God. And as soon as I read it, I told her, “This is it! You’ve found your voice. This’ll be the one that sells.” That story, now titled Her Best Catch, was Lindi’s first sale. (YAY!! I’m still excited!)
Trying to figure out cardboard characters can be tough. I suppose it means they lack depth, lack emotion, lack personality, lack relatability, lack believability, lack likability. Lack…lack…lack! So many lacks! :)
So how can we avoid this problem? I’ve sat down and tried to come up with ways:
1. Plan. Do some background work. Maybe even some sort of character interview.
-- Figure out their family of origin, past relationships, education, friends.
-- Figure out what they want and what motivates them (ask why, why, why?).
--Figure out their faults and fears. Also their strengths. I can’t think of anything more cardboard than a perfect character. Except maybe a whiny, weak character.
2. Decide what type personality they have. Give them a couple of quirks that make them memorable.
3. Make them likable and sympathetic. (See my previous post on this)
4. Don’t hold back on emotion. Pour yourself into each character. One thing I see in contest entries over and over is lack of emotion. Go deep, here. Use your own hurts/fears/joy/anger/frustrations, etc. to help you imagine how your characters feel. This can be exhausting while you’re writing, but well worth it.
5. Study premise and theme (I recommend The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley Williams) to strengthen the character arc so the story and your characters’ growth will resonate with your reader.
6. Make them active, not reactive. I had a hard time learning this (and am still learning!). Don’t just make terrible things happen to them that cause them to react. No, have them make decisions and act, doing things that put them into messes (their weaknesses you created will cause this). The struggle to get out of the mess is what readers enjoy.
7. I suspect sometimes stilted dialogue may lead to cardboard characters. Read it out loud to see if it’s conversational. But don’t try to make it like a regular conversation (no chit-chat). If dialogue is one of your growing areas, then study how your favorite writers handle it. Ask for feedback on your dialogue.
8. Use layering. It would take a whole post to discuss this. But think about how subplots and the struggles of other characters can reflect your main characters’ problems. Also, consider how your story setting can best reveal characterization.
9. Make sure your characters are not TSTL—Too Stupid To Live. Our characters need to act believably and in-character. Make sure the “person” you’ve created does things you’ve set them up to do. Of if he/she acts out of character, then make sure you’ve motivated it well. We don’t want to throw the reader out of the story (or make her throw the book against the wall).
10. You tell me! How do you create full, believable, well-rounded characters that we love?
If you’d like to be entered in my giveaway of a critique of your first 5 pages (focusing on characterization), please leave a comment and let me know to enter you!
Missy Tippens’s newest release from Love Inspired, A House Full of Hope (her favorite book yet!), is available now on Harlequin.com! It’ll soon be available at other booksellers and can be pre-ordered now.
From black sheep to father of four...
Before becoming a Christian, Mark Ryker ran with a bad crowd and broke hearts. Including his father's. Now a successful businessman, Mark has come home to Corinthia, Georgia, to make amends. But no one will forgive him. So when the widowed mother of four renting his dad's run-down house needs help fixing up the place, Mark gets to work. Pretty Hannah Hughes and her sweet kids have him longing to be part of the clan, but Hannah isn't ready to let go of the past. Still, they are working together on a house full of hope—and that's all Mark needs.
Read an Excerpt by clicking here.